Italy: Learning to Cook Slowly in Umbria
Slow Cooking School, Possibly My Best Day Ever!
By Ron Elledge
Meet the Players
It’s a beautiful day in the Italian hill-country as we approach our arrival destination of Il Fontanaro Farms. At 9:00 am sharp, and as promised, Giovanni is waiting at the front gate.
Giovanni is one half of the brother-sister team that will be introducing us to the culinary, olive, and vino enchantments found at Il Fontanaro Farms. The farm is located on the outskirts of the rural village of Paciano in the Umbria Region of Italy.
Once the car is parked and my camera gear is removed, we are led into the kitchen of their beautifully restored, historic homestead. There we find Giovanni’s sister, Alina, ready to introduce us to the adventure of the day, her Slow Cooking Experience.
Little did we know we were embarking on one of the most fascinating, educational and downright fun adventures of a lifetime.
A Visit to the Garden:
The first task of the day involved a short stroll to the organic garden about 100 ft. from the kitchen door. Here, Alina will school us in line with her guiding principal, “From the garden to the kitchen with the freshest ingredients.”
Alina explained in detail the process of producing food, from seed to table, that is safe and healthy to be eaten. We learned their organic process, the total abandon of any GMOs, and no pesticides or chemicals of any kind. Just water from the rain or well and fertilizer from organically raised livestock.
On our short walk to the garden, we stopped by one of the many container gardens where Alina picked some of the herbs to season for our delicious dinner. She picked the mint, ground it in the palm of her hand and released an aroma that made my sensors dance with glee. Why is my mouth watering, we haven’t even started cooking yet?
Once back in the kitchen, it takes only a few moments to realize that Alina is at home in the kitchen. She is a passionate cook and incredibly good at delegation. Our class of three, Shelli, Sunshine, and I, were all immediately involved in different aspects of the food preparation.
From slicing, dicing, seasoning, stirring and tossing, everyone was involved. We prepared the pasta sauce which would simmer over the flame for many hours. Next, we turned to the “Drunken Peach” dessert which consisted of fresh peaches bathed in a fine white wine produced at Il Fontanaro Farms.
Roll, Roll, Roll the Dough
After a few minutes, about 45, of preparation in the kitchen we moved to the dining room table. Or should I say the noodle room. It is here on the dining room table that we will mix, roll, cut, and admire the various pasta to be relished in a few hours.
This process of pasta preparation is the highlight of the cooking experience for me.
It begins by “dumping” the ingredients in a pile on the table. Flour, eggs, seasonings, all heaped in a cone-shaped mound. Then, with clean hands, we begin the process of kneading the ingredients into dough.
It is amazing how little water is used and how dry the ball of dough is kept. This is where I rise and shine. Because of my hand strength, I was given the task of putting the finishing touches on this process of kneading.
Once worked, it’s time to begin the rolling process. I had no idea how much energy went into turning a lump of pasta dough into a paper-thin sheet, ready to be fashioned into pici pasta (wide noodles), tortellini. ravioli, and even a few bow ties.
Olive Oil or Motor Oil?
While the pasta rested, the sauce wafted heavenly smells, and the peaches imbibed. It was time for Alina’s lesson on olive oil production and tasting.
Alina guided us through the history and significance of olive oil from Biblical references through the Greek and Roman times and right up to the present.
She stressed that in Roman society olive oil held a prominent place in the culinary culture of the day. It was recognized for its nutritional, health maintenance, and medicinal properties.
I’ll Drink to That
When we tasted the different oils, we all agreed there was a stark difference between the store-bought olive oil and the olive oil produced at Il Fontanaro Farms.
We were taught the three-step process of: 1. observing the color, 2. sensing the aroma, and 3. swallowing.
What a treat it was to “feel” the aroma. Alina poured the oil in small cups, we covered them with our hand (this compresses the fragrances) then swirled the oil a bit, closed our eyes and inhaled.
Artichoke, tomato skin, lemongrass, almond, and a bit of fresh cut grass were some of the sensations gleaned from the aroma. Alina was correct, “The more you feel your food, the better it tastes.”
Not only was the color and smell diverse, the variance in taste was amazing. The store-bought olive oil was tasteless and left an oily sensation in the throat. Alina’s oil was spicy and we were all amazed at the burning sensation felt in the throat when swallowed.
Alina explained that when swallowed, the first action of an excellent olive oil is to kill the bacteria in the throat. No wonder it has been used to soothe sore throats for thousands of years.
A word of caution given by Alina: Never store your quality olive oil in hot spaces. It should be cared for as a fine wine. The worst thing you can do is keep your oil near the stove, the heat will quickly ruin it.
While the table was being prepared on the patio, we visited with Giovanni in the family wine cellar. It is here that they store their olive oil to keep it at a constant temperature after harvest. When speaking of aroma, I shared, “the more you feel your food, the better it tastes.”
So, it is with vision. When we saw the setting of our meal, it stimulated our taste buds. Ambience certainly impacts the sense of taste.
Our meal consisted of a fine family produced wine and bread served with excellent olive oil. We shared a wide noodled pasta and ravioli filled with burrata cheese. The ravioli was freshly prepared by Alina and yours truly. It was served over fresh squash and tomatoes, and garnished with fresh flowers picked from the yard.
It doesn’t get any better than sitting outside in the fresh air, at a gorgeous table setting on their picturesque patio. Enjoying the smells of fresh blooming flowers and authentic home cooking, while surrounded by the beauty of the pristine Italian country side
As I sat back feeling full and satisfied, out came the drunken peach dessert. I forced it down, happily. My God, it was delicious!
It was a flawless, educational, fun filled day capped off by a culinary delight. With new friends, new understanding, and a new perspective on life. I felt blessed knowing my hands had a part in the preparation.
When You Go
Whether you plan to make Il Fontanaro an overnight trip or a stay-put vacation, this is one experience not to be missed on a trip to the Umbria or Tuscany area of Italy.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- In this area of Italy, the main highways are very good, mostly four-lane. However, once you leave the Autostrada, the roads become narrow and curvy. We prefered to do most of our driving during the day.
- If you rent a car, and I suggest you do, the smaller the better. The village streets are narrow and fuel will run between $5.50 and $6.25 per gallon. We like to use www.rentalcars.com throughout Europe as they give you many options.
- Last of all, come prepared to have a rewarding adventure as you enjoy the people, climate, and customs of Italy.
Rome and Florence
If you plan to travel to Rome or Florence while staying at Il Fontanaro, they are both about 1.5 hours away by train and your fare will range from €10-€68, depending on your desired accommodations.
The train is a comfortable ride and will transport you to the heart of the city. This is nice because city driving in Italy, is congested, fast paced, and the streets are narrow.
You can park your car and board the Trainlin in the town of Chiusi-Chianciano which is about a 15-minute drive from Il Fontanaro.
Slowcooking School at Il Fontanaro
Purchase Il Fontanaro Farms Olive Oil
Train Tickets Trainline
Tuscany Tours Walks of Italy
Ron Elledge is a Freelance Photographer/Writer who splits his time between Phoenix, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico when not on a photo shoot or world adventure. Ron’s photography can be viewed at www.RonElledgePhotography.com. His love of travel is shared by his wife, Shelli, with whom he travels the globe and together they document their journeys.